Tag Archives: river

Peace Like A River

Two weeks after Dominic was born, Mike announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.

Fear.

In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if”. After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping merrily over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers, but they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

The Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos

(Update: In an irony of the sort you never want to live through, the day after I posted this my mother in law slipped on our stairs here in Laos and Dominic broke his femur. We are back in Laos now, but must return to Thailand for follow up in two weeks. Continued thoughts and prayers for good healing appreciated.)

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Lessons learned about Laos, parenting, and development work, in Phonxai

On Monday, Mike and I plus the friends we have in town at the moment (Mum, Dad, and three little boys aged six, three, and 8 months) traveled up to Phonxai so that Mike could inspect a school in progress. This was an all day endeavor that involved renting a landrover and spending more than six hours traveling – about five of them on dirt roads.

As always when I travel up to the villages here in Laos, it was illuminating. In no particular order, here is a summary of things I learned or relearned on Monday.

1. Northern Laos is lush with mountains and winding dirt roads dug into the side of steep slopes.

2. Water is life – the rivers paint the valleys a vivid green, even when the hills are a dusty and parched brown.

3. In Lao, X is pronounced S (Phonxai is pronounced “Ponsigh”)

4. If you spend five hours in a landrover on dirt roads when you are four months pregnant you’ll end up feeling well frothed on the inside. Also, you should not drink a great deal in advance of this trip, and you should definitely wear a sports bra.

5. British kids will find even the cool season here in Laos uncomfortably hot.

6. Boys who are three and six years old have an incredible capacity to repeat the same observation or question numerous times (e.g., “gosh, it’s very bumpy, isn’t it?” and “are we nearly there yet?” and “why not?”)

7. If you let these same two little boys sit in the back-bench seats of the landrover together (even with two adults back there as well) trouble will erupt roughly every thirty seconds as long as they are both awake. You will find yourself repeatedly saying things like:

  • “I said, bottom on the seat! If you can’t stay sitting down you’ll have to come sit in the middle seat with mum.”
  • “Leave your brother alone! Don’t touch him! Not even one finger!”
  • “Stop singing that song! I mean it, you have until the count of five!”
  • “Try not to throw up, OK? Take deep breaths, look out the front window, and here’s a plastic bag just in case.”

8. If you want to make little boys deliriously happy, all you have to do is get in a landrover and drive back and forth across rivers – stopping every so often to let them walk across a bamboo bridge adjacent to the crossing.

9. Little boys will be quite enamored with squat, bucket rinse, toilets and very probably decide that they’d really rather have this type of toilet in their own home.

10. People all over the world are fascinated by each other’s babies. If you are a mother carrying a baby, you don’t need a word of the local language to effectively communicate on this subject.

11. Lao children in the classroom are remarkably well behaved, despite being packed onto backless benches. If a strange adult walks into the classroom they will leap to their feet and greet you with a polite sabaidee in unison.

12. It is a lot easier for non-profits to raise money to build schools than it is to fund teacher-training programs, but many rural schools suffer from a shortage of good teachers.

13. Rice banks (a village-run storehouse of rice that village families can borrow from during the hungry months and then repay the loan plus five percent interest after harvest) do great things in helping to reduce food insecurity. In one village we visited, of the 93 families in the village more than 60 borrowed from the rice bank every year. The rice bank had been started with an initial, donated, “fund” of two tons of rice and now had a total fund of about six tons of rice.

    Mountains in Northern Laos

    Water is Life

    Bamboo bridge across river in Northern Laos

    Fun at river crossings

    An old school building in Laos

    Children in a new school building in Laos

    Even Lao children find it too hot sometimes

    Learning about the village rice bank

    Inside the rice bank